After the announcement Darleen Druyun told Jerry Daniels, the president of Boeing's military-aircraft division, that his project was rated A. But Lockheed's was A+. Hough likes to say that he originally feared having one candidate that rated four on a ten-point scale and another that rated six. "I got a nine and a ten," he says. Lockheed won for the reason that Dain Hancock and his colleagues had foreseen: the lift fan made the airplane perform better. Boeing's edge in manufacturing could not overcome this edge in design.
What, exactly, has Lockheed Martin won? "They have bought themselves the opportunity to compete, continuously, through twelve straight annual funding cycles to keep this thing alive," one civilian analyst told me. "It's going to be tough, since the airplane is not exactly what anyone wanted, and more-pressing things will come along." One of the new things sure to come along is unmanned combat aircraft. Many members of Boeing's JSF team have been switched to its unmanned-vehicles project. When meeting with several of them, I mentioned a nightmare scenario for Lockheed Martin: that Boeing, while playing the good loser, would get its revenge by successfully promoting unmanned vehicles as the real way to make defense affordable. The Boeing men all laughed when I said this. Of course that is what they have in mind.
The more important question is What, so far, has the country won? The most optimistic interpretation would be that the JSF represents the introduction of the best, real parts of the New Economy to the messy business of building military machines. Talking to Tom Burbage in Washington and in Fort Worth, I kept being surprised by how much he sounded like the high-tech executives I have interviewed in recent years. "You have to create an environment where people can succeed," he would say. "Too often you put people in a situation where they can't really succeed, and when they don't, you hammer them." He talked about inviting bids from foreign suppliers, on the "best athlete" principle. But of course Burbage is a high-tech executive. After Lockheed Martin won the contract, Burbage took seventy team members on a weekend retreat where he showed them a large mock-up cover of Fast Company magazine dated five years into the future. "JSF: Simply the Best!" the cover line read. He asked his associates to think through the steps that would lead to such success. (He considered preparing another cover, "JSF: The Smoking Hole," but didn't go through with it. Fast Company learned about the mock-up, got in touch with Burbage, and ended up doing a real cover story about him this spring.)
In ways that go far beyond retreats and motivational talk, the production of this airplane could be a large step forward. Here are two illustrations, from among dozens of possibilities.
Most military airplanes are handmade to a degree that is hard to believe if you haven't seen it. Putting together a wing for a brand-new, top-of-the-line F-18 involves thousands of rivets and hundreds of parts. The final assembly of the wing takes place on enormous tooling structures that force the various spars, ribs, and skin pieces into proper alignment, so that they can be fastened. This is the way cars were built thirty years ago, and why they rattled. At the Lockheed Martin plant in Fort Worth, under the guidance of Martin McLoughlin, the JSF's director of manufacturing, I saw a demonstration of modern manufacturing systems like the ones already in place at Boeing. The wing is formed as two great halves, and the joined halves are matched so precisely to the fuselage that they snap in. The computer industry as we know it would not exist were it not for high-speed, high-precision assembly, nor could America's car makers compete with Japan's had they not used these techniques. This is the first time these methods will be used for the military.
The second example is stealth. The most expensive military plane ever built is the original stealth bomber, the B-2. Each B-2 cost $1 billion. Today, adding "low observable," or stealthy, qualities to an airplane is practically a no-cost option. So much has been learned about how to design wings, engine intakes, and other features that there is little point in building non-stealthy airplanes.
The JSF also represents the New Economy in that it is a global airplane. Richard Aboulafia, the aviation analyst, says that if the JSF meets cost targets, it might well be the only viable fighter plane on the world market a generation from now. "As a libertarian, I eschew any targeted industrial policy," he told me. "But if I were the U.S. government, I would think this was irresistible. If you make the assumption that this is the same economic class as the F-16, there's no reason you couldn't sell to twenty-five countries, maybe more."
These projections fit the "Simply the Best!" story. But naturally there's another possibility. Even if the program somehow keeps meeting its cost targets, the JSF planes coming into service won't arrive fast enough to replace the planes that are getting old. In the meantime, the United States will spend several hundred billion dollars maintaining a fleet that becomes smaller by the year. And if the program can't meet its targets, everything changes. The export market dries up. The death spiral begins.
The fatalistic view of the JSF's prospects rests not on what has happened to this project so far but on what has happened to virtually every other project the Pentagon has undertaken. Early this year I spoke with a man who has been involved in Defense Department budgeting since the 1960s. In theory the JSF was a good idea, he said. So far it had stayed surprisingly close to its targets. But the weight of history suggests that obstacles are still ahead. Of the dozens of weapons programs this man had observed through their development, how many had gone into service at or under the cost specified when Congress initially approved them? None. How many had met the higher cost target authorized when they moved from early development to actual production? None. How many had gone into service in the numbers foreseen when the plans were approved? None. So if the JSF meets its targets, it will do something no previous weapons program has done. That is a sign of this program's ambition—and of the odds against it.